Before I get into my criticisms of “Babel,” I will say first that it is better than the vast majority of movies out there. It is well-made on almost every level. The photography, dialogue, acting, music and direction all serve to make the movie compelling and watchable. It has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, most of which are justified. Still, it lacks that extra something that I feel would make it deserving of its Best Picture nomination.
“Babel” tells three small interconnected stories on a global scale. It is Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s third movie and the third one that tells separate stories that connect in some way. The first two were 2000’s “Amores Perros” and 2003’s “21 Grams.” Both of those movies were effective in telling stories of grief and chance, among other themes. At this point, though, the technique comes off as not much more than a gimmick, mostly because “Babel” is just a little too ambitious for its own good.
In one of the stories, Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are a married couple on a tour bus in Morocco. Susan is injured by a bullet that comes flying through the window. The shooting occurs while two young boys are playing with one of their fathers’ rifle, but government officials quickly jump to conclusions that the incident is terrorism-related.
Meanwhile, back in California, Susan and Richard’s nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barazza) tries to figure out a way to get to her cousin’s wedding in Mexico. She ends up deciding to take the two children who are under her care with her. You just know this is going to end badly for at least one of them.
In the third story, a deaf Japanese teenager in Tokyo named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) acts rebelliously as she tries to cope with her mother’s suicide.
For those of you who grew up watching “Sesame Street,” let’s play a game and ask ourselves, “Which of these things is not like the other/which of these just doesn’t belong?” I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what the connection between Chieko and the other two stories is, but it’s pretty small and inconsequential. It leaves you wondering “So what?” In movies like this, you want the connections between characters to feel somewhat important and to not feel arbitrary. Chieko’s story is interesting in its own right and Oscar-nominated Kikuchi plays the part beautifully, but it really doesn’t have much of a place in the movie. If developed a bit more, it could have stood as its own film.
Barazza was also deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actress and does a great job playing the nanny. Barazza does a great job of conveying how her earnest care for the children comes into direct conflict with her desire to make it to the wedding. This story shows off Gonzalez Inarritu’s skill for showing how personal decisions can have a ripple effect on the world around us.
I watched the entire film very patiently in hopes that it would have a satisfying ending but I was ultimately disappointed. It left me wondering exactly what the meaning of the juxtaposed narratives was. Did the stories comment on each other, either in terms of their characters or themes? I didn’t feel that they did. The title, of course, alludes to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which is supposed to explain why there are so many different languages in the world. Every article and interview related to the movie suggests that is saying something about how language and culture have a huge effect on our place in the world and how we perceive and are perceived. However, it seemed to me that lack of communication played a far smaller role in the plot than chance and personal choices. I certainly admire Gonzalez Inarittu a great deal and I don’t begrudge the international attention “Babel” has brought him, but I hope that his project will add up to much more than the sum of its parts.
Now, on to a related topic. The Cadiz Record is holding a contest that could win you a half-year free subscription. Whenever you see me in public, just ask me to name which movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in any year after 1928, when the first awards were given. If I don’t answer in five seconds, you can give me your name and number, and we’ll set you up. Just to be clear, the years will correspond to the year the movie was released, not the following year when the award was given. So far, no one has challenged me, so I’ll see if anyone does before this year’s Oscars, which will be on Feb. 25.
“Babel” is rated R: No one admitted under 17 without a parent or adult guardian.